FRIDAY'S HEROES Willie Pep Remembers ...
By Robert Sacchi AuthorHouse Copyright © 2007 Robert Sacchi
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-4343-0182-6
"Sandy and Me"
Sandy Saddler was one of those heroes, although a lot of people thought he was a villain. But I say Sandy was all right. However, I can't really talk about Sandy right now without talking about myself just a little more.
When I was still on the West Side Highway nearing the George Washington Bridge, I saw the signs to Newark Airport and that always makes me shudder. In 1947, I was on a non-scheduled airline, a two-motor job that overshot Newark Airport and came down in the woods in Middleville, New Jersey. Five guys were killed and I lay in a New Jersey hospital for five days. I said, "Doc, my back is killing me." He said, "We can't find nothin' wrong." So I laid there. Finally I was taken to a hospital near home in Hartford and they discovered it. My fifth and sixth vertebrae in my back were broken and my leg was broken. I was there for another five days, on my back. If it had gone undetected much longer it would have healed wrong and I would have been a hunchback. It was my youth and my luck that got me over it.
I had a cast on my chest and a cast on my leg for five months, so now I told the doctor, I said, "Doc, the cast is going to come off in June." I said, "When am I going to start fighting again?"
He said, Willie, this fall, September or October, you start taking long walks around the park and then the beginning of next year we'll worry about going into the gym."
Well, I couldn't wait that long. The cast came off in June and I ran into the gymnasium. I had a fight in July. And I defended my title in September of that year, against Jock Leslie in Flint, Michigan. The doctors couldn't believe it, the fact that I was fighting and winning, I guess.
I had taken my casts off in June- the cast around my chest and the cast around my leg. I went to the gym and started loosening up. Then I started running in the park and I started training. I told my manager I wanted a fight as soon as possible. He wanted to test me and five weeks later I had a fight. I'll never forget it, with a tough little Puerto Rican kid. Victor Flores, his name was. I went ten tough rounds. Now this was really a test because usually you get a guy you can easily handle, but this guy was there punching at me for ten tough rounds. There were two doctors at ringside and they were totally surprised. Those ten rounds with a tough Puerto Rican kid got me back on my way.
I boxed a few more times and that September, as I said, I defended my title against Jock Leslie, who was the number one contender, in his home town. Now when you go into a home town you've got to beat your man without a doubt or you won't get it, and this was for the Championship of the World. There was no problem as to who won the fight; I stopped him in eleven rounds. My loss was that the insurance company that I was suing, they said I was better than ever, so I didn't get any money from the plane crash. I think I got $15,000 for my expenses and after I paid everybody I was left with about $3000. I had sued for $250,000 but after I started boxing and winning the suit was thrown out. But I had my trunks.
One year later, in 1948, I fought Sandy Saddler for the first time. Now it's funny the way things happen. There's a story about me and Sandy that not too many people know. See, my manager, Lou Viscusi, had been friendly with the Johnston brothers for years. There was Jimmy, one of the best managers around, and Ned, who handled Jimmy's fighters, and Charley, who learned from Jimmy and became a great manager himself. And finally there was Bill, who started out managing boxers but later switched to wrestling. Anyway, Bill came to Lou one day and said he had a kid who he'd like to get started and couldn't we put him in a four rounder. So Lou says okay and the kid comes up. He's a tall skinny Negro kid and he wins his fight and we forget about him. A couple of weeks later Bill calls again and asks if he can't get the kid in a six. So Lou puts him in against Jock Leslie and in the third round Leslie knocks him out.
Now that's all we knew about the kid. His name was Sandy Saddler and nobody ever heard of him. We forgot about him. The next thing we know Bill Johnston has turned Sandy over to his brother Charley and Charley started to move him. He had him fight some in New York, but mostly out of state, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Detroit and Boston, New Orleans and Caracas, Jamaica and Havana, Aruba and Honolulu, almost any place where he could get him in.
Sandy was coming along but nobody in New York paid much attention. Then suddenly he's the number one contender. So Charley Johnston came around to Lou again and asked to get Sandy in a main event in New York to show what he could do. The arrangement was with Bobby Thompson and he wins but he doesn't look all that good. The boxing writers therefore said that Willie Pep doesn't have to lose any sleep worrying about Sandy Saddler.
However, Sandy was the number one contender so we made the match. But I wasn't even a little worried. I had just stopped Jock Leslie, who had whipped Sandy. I had won seventy-three fights in a row and I didn't think any kid named Sandy Saddler was going to beat me. So we fought. It was in Madison Square Garden on October 29, 1948. I started out feinting as usual to get a feeling for him and he ignored it completely and waded in and caught me cold. I was completely surprised. He knocked me down twice before the fourth round and then he stopped me.
We had a rematch. It was set for February 11, 1949 and you better believe I was ready for him. Most of the writers were picking Sandy, but I was ready for him. I was dead set on beating him no matter what. That night we had the fight of our lives. A lot of people who know what they're talking about rate it as one of the greatest fights, and I just happen to be very proud of that fight. As Casey Stengel would say, "You could look it up."
As I said, I was ready for him that time. I was in great condition and my timing was sharp. I was boxing as good as ever. By the eleventh round I was way ahead. I had won at least eight rounds and Sandy had to knock me out to win. Now they say Sandy was dirty but he was just rough and tough, which was the way to beat me. Besides, he had four or five inches in height on me and was as hard a puncher as anybody I ever boxed, second only to Chalky Wright, who was the hardest hitter ever in the featherweight division.
Anyway, Sandy knew what he had to do and from the twelfth on he really came at me. But I was ready and boxing my best. I was thinking and jabbing well and keeping him away with good right hands and then tying him up. I had him off balance most of the time but he was desperate now and kept swinging with those long arms of his trying to end it all with one punch. But I had him mostly off balance and only a few of his shots were real hard. He tried desperately but he couldn't put me down. I had my title back. And besides the packed Madison Square Garden, thousands and thousands throughout the country had seen it on television, way back in 1949. It was a great fight for lots of people.
We fought again in 1950 and that was a good fight, too, only rougher. It was going along close with me leading on points when all of a sudden my shoulder snapped and it hurt bad. I couldn't lift my arm and there was no way I could continue unless I wanted to fight Sandy with one hand. It was around the eighth or ninth round. I couldn't continue and Sandy was the Champ again.
We fought for the last time on September 26, 1951, in one of the roughest, toughest fights of all times, and in some ways one of the most controversial. Not that there was any doubt about who won. After all, I was cut and couldn't continue. This time my left eye was completely shut and I was fighting with one eye. I was ahead on points by the end of the eighth round but I couldn't continue, so the fight had to be his. But there was controversy. First of all it was a real brawl, like the old time bare knuckle days, with wrestling, heeling, eye gouging, tripping, thumbing - you name it. A lot of writers thought that we should have both been thrown out. They thought Ray Miller the referee, let it get out of hand, that he should have followed his own instructions. He told us he had the power to penalize us and he wanted a clean fight. Well, I've got to admit he didn't do much. However, I'm not blaming the referee; it was me and Sandy who did it.
And that's the second point of controversy. Who was most to blame? Who started it? Now, quite a few writers said it was my fault, but that's ridiculous. I'm not saying I was blameless, but look at it this way. Sandy was the tough guy; I was the boxer. It didn't make any sense for me to rough it up with him. However, I did it eventually because he started it and I got mad. In the first thirty seconds Miller had to warn Sandy to lay off holding me around the neck and hitting me with his free hand. I didn't do anything that early in the fight. In fact, I was boxing good and won most of the early rounds. I know if I kept it up I would've beat him and become the only guy to hold the featherweight crown three times.
But that wasn't to be. I got mad and tried to out rough him, which wasn't my style. And the referee didn't do much, so we kept it up. In fact, one writer asked how come they bothered with a referee at all.
Anyway, my biggest problem was that he caught me in the second round and cut my right eyelid. I was hurt. I couldn't see and later in that round he knocked me down with a left to the body. There was no doubt about the fact that he really hit. After that round I boxed him good for a few rounds, making him miss and then countering. But I couldn't see well and sooner or later he would corner me and then the rough stuff would begin. It wouldn't end until we were both wrestling around on the canvas or the referee was actually outside the ring trying to pry us apart.
In the seventh round we were wrestling around and somehow my leg got tangled up around Sandy's and the referee rushed over to untie us. The referee wound up getting tangled himself and we being off balance accidentally caused him to fall down. It resulted in a very funny scene. The spectators roared with laughter and poor Ray Miller was red with embarrassment.
When he picked himself off the canvas, Sandy still had me tied up like a pretzel. Miller got mad and said, "Break, break you S.O.B.'s or I'll suspend both of you."
In the next round, Sandy came out and deliberately back-handed me across the face as I was on the ropes. The referee didn't say a thing. So I proceeded to jab and get behind Sandy and deliberately tripped him. Miller warned me. My fans seeing that only I was being reprimanded, charged the ring screaming at the referee for being one-sided. Charley Johnston climbed onto the ring apron and screamed at the referee for allowing me to trip Sandy. Poor Ray Miller got it from both ends.
Anyway, it went on like that and my eye got worse and worse till I couldn't see at all. You can't fight with one eye, not against Sandy Saddler, and not in a fight like that. At the start of the ninth round I couldn't continue. It was over.
We had wrestled in the fifth, sixth and seventh besides in the eighth. We were strangling each other and there was gouging and heeling throughout. In spite of, or despite, all this, Ray Miller had me ahead five rounds to three on his card. I was also ahead on the judges' scorecards. But I lost; that was my 165th fight and only my fourth loss. It was my third TKO loss, all three to Sandy. He had knocked out 89 guys in 130 fights to that time. He could certainly hit.
A funny bit about this bout was Robert Christenberry, the new boxing commissioner. At the weigh-in he passed the remark that he liked wrestling. He saw it that night. After the fight he didn't say much except that "these boys don't like each other."
Of course the boxing commission was not happy with this brawl we staged and Christenberry, making his first major decision as commissioner, suspended Sandy and me from boxing in the state of New York for an indefinite period. I can't blame him. We had broken all the rules that night.
It took quite a few months for the commission to cool off and when they did we both were reinstated. In the meantime, I had won fifteen straight outside of New York and my popularity was as strong as ever. The International Boxing Commission booked me into the first open date - a Friday Night television spot against a tough up and coming Pat Marcune. I beat Marcune bad, real bad, and once again I was in good standing with the New York Commission. Nothing succeeds like success.
Now, a lot of people think there was an antagonism between Sandy and me. Maybe there was during our fights - but we're friendly now. I've boxed him several times since in charity exhibitions and we get along fine. When we were fighting for the championship I wanted to lick him in the worst way and he wanted to lick me. Well, we went all out. But I have no hard feelings and we get along. No complaints here.
It's a funny thing about styles. I beat a lot of guys who beat Sandy. Yet he beat me three out of four times. Humberto Sierra beat Sandy and I beat Sierra twice. Paddy DeMarco beat Sandy twice and I beat DeMarco. Strange. If you don't have the right style you're going to get licked, and if you don't fight your own fight you're going to get licked. I tried to get rough with Saddler and you usually can't beat a man at his own game. Not that man.
A year after our last bout, Sandy got drafted into the Army. This was early in 1952. The National Boxing Association thought it would be a good idea to have an 'interim champion' to help keep the interest alive in the featherweight division until Sandy got back. The "interim champion" not only would fill in for Saddler during his absence but would automatically be recognized as the number one challenger against the returning Saddler.
Percy Basset became the "interim champion' and the European boxing officials went along with this by matching Bassett with France's Ray Famechon. I had beat Ray several years earlier in a title bout. Anyway, Bassett stopped Famechon and was now the undisputed 'interim champion."
But Bassett never did get that crack at Sandy.
Instead, he was asked to meet Lulu Perez in an elimination match and the winner would positively be given a go with Saddler. Bassett stopped Perez, but neither man got a title shot.
After he was discharged in 1954, Sandy continued his tune-up bouts and still wasn't ready to defend his title. But, he said, he would consider the winner of a Bassett-"Red Top" Davis match.
So Bassett got into the elimination against Davis and he lost in twelve rounds at Madison Square Garden. Poor Percy, after all that fighting and no title bout with Saddler.
In 1955 Sandy met Davis in his first title defense since the last one he had with me in 1951 and kayoed Davis. He went on to kayo Lulu Perez and then lose a non-title decision to Joe Lopes that year.
The same year he lost a non-title bout to Flash Elorde. As a result, a title bout was set with 'Elorde in 1956 because of Flash's good showing. Sandy kayoed him.
Sandy had his last fight later on in 1956. He took a shellacking from an unranked Jewish kid called Larry Boardman in yet another non-title bout.
At age 30, Sandy had compiled an amazing record. He had a total of 162 bouts, losing 15 and a knockout ratio of almost 70 percent - 103 knockout victims, including me.
What cut Sandy's career short? Well, Sandy was involved in a crash in July, 1956. He was riding in a taxicab and struck his head against the door when the cab crashed up into the sidewalk.
He was hospitalized for about three or four weeks, and then tried to get back in shape by working out- but it didn't help.
He was constantly bothered by warnings from the boxing commission about defending his title. The finally told him to submit a medical report on his condition.
In the report, the doctor treating Saddler since the accident recommended that Sandy quit boxing if he wanted to retain his sight. And that if he continued there would be a chance of total blindness. At his age, with no "money matches" in sight and with Sandy's earning power on the downgrade, Sandy took the advice of the doctor.
It was a tough turn of events for Sandy, considering boxing was all he knew and he had worked so hard to get there.
But you know, Sandy had 160 fights and may have been experiencing some eye trouble somewhere along the way like other boxers have. Eye injuries and that threat of blindness is one of the major occupational hazards of boxers. (Sandy made a wise decision.) A lot of guys kid themselves and keep walking into the night.
Excerpted from FRIDAY'S HEROES by Robert Sacchi Copyright © 2007 by Robert Sacchi. Excerpted by permission.
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